The three lines in the state’s 283-page budget may have taken up little space, but the study they authorized on Kentucky’s corrections system could have a big impact in the years ahead.
My colleagues in the General Assembly and I set this in motion because it will give us a chance to work with the Pew Center on the States, an independent and highly reputable non-profit organization that has undertaken in-depth looks at various government programs across the nation.
It was this organization, in fact, that showed Kentucky having the highest prison growth rate in 2007, giving us a wake-up call that has already started to pay dividends.
As proof, consider that we were one of about two dozen states that saw a decrease in its prison population from 2008 to 2009. That coincided with an overall drop in state prisons nationwide, the first time that has happened since 1972, when the prison population was 700 percent smaller. (The total number of adults behind bars continued to increase, however, because of growth in the federal system, which has doubled in size during the last 15 years.)
This downward trend at the state level is driven by several factors. For one, the country is becoming much safer, with the crime rate a fourth lower in 2007 than it was in 1997. The difficult economy is also causing states to look for more savings, especially as their prison costs continue inching toward $50 billion annually, and there is greater reliance on technology and better use of such things as counseling.
The General Assembly has taken other steps in this direction during the last two years. For example, we increased the use of home incarceration and drug-treatment programs while changing the financial limits on some theft crimes to reflect inflation.
Our Judiciary Committee has considered additional changes as well through a subcommittee that spent 2008 and 2009 looking at our penal code, which has not seen a major update since the mid-1970s. One suggestion is to follow other states by creating a fifth level of felonies for non-violent, non-sexual crimes. Right now, someone convicted of stealing $500 could cost the state up to $100,000, if that person spends the full five years in prison that the current law allows.
During our legislative session earlier this year, the General Assembly voted unanimously to create a broader task force to study the issue further while including representatives from the Kentucky Supreme Court; the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet; county judge/executives; and prosecutors and public advocates.
Surveys indicate the public supports this move toward alternative punishments for those convicted of non-violent crimes. In Texas, more than 80 percent surveyed favored going this route versus spending $1 billion on new prisons. Since 2007, that state has seen its prison population, its corrections costs and its crime rate all drop.
One direction we may opt to take in Kentucky is a risk assessment of those about to be sentenced. The Attorney General’s office pointed out its effectiveness in a 2005 report, noting Virginia’s lead in using a variety of factors to help determine the proper punishment for those convicted of non-violent crimes, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
Being smarter on crime – improving public safety while saving tax dollars at the same time – promises to be a leading topic of discussion for years to come in the legislature, but with the right information in hand, the kind the Pew study can provide, we are poised to continue building on the gains we have already made.
As always, I am interested in knowing your views and concerns, whether on this issue or any other affecting the state. Should you want to write, my address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.
State Representative Rick Rand